We have taken a while to mull over how to write this post (now in 2 parts!), apologies for the delay, but I hope the words will speak for themselves about why we might have had difficulties. We spent a total of 5 weeks in Ardèche. That length of time always brings its ups and downs, both literally (Ardèche is very mountainous!) and figuratively. I wasn’t sure about how much detail I should go into on a public blog post so I will try to be honest without divulging too much information at the same time. I digress…

We arrived in this marvellous region on a high – entering the tiny medieval village of Jaujac. After finding a grassy, empty car park (you don’t know how relieved we are to find spaces like this!) we wandered off to explore. It didn’t take too long – the village rests on either side of a small gorge connected by an arched bridge. One side rose steeply, with the houses clustered closely together. Only a small alleyway accessed the topmost houses. We followed a chemin down to the river where treasures untold lay in our path.

Basalt pillars (Jaujac)

Huge basalt pillars lined the edge of the cliffs, with glittering, clear pools of water at the base. This was the perfect wild swimming spot! We found some exciting jumping spots to plunge into the depths below.

Plonge Jaujac

Wanting to know more about the source of the lava flow in the gorge, we walked up to and around the top of the (relatively young) Jaujac volcano and tasted its naturally gaseous spring water.

After a night in Jaujac, we drove to our second workaway experience in northern Ardeche, near to a small town called Le Cheylard. The hamlet of La Coste is situated at the end of a small road (could just about fit the van!) that wound its way for 5km into a forested and almost deserted valley. There were only about 3/4 permanent residents in the hamlet! For us city folk, this felt wondrously isolated.

The history of the valley was quite interesting: it was abandoned during the ‘exodus’ of countryside habitants to urban areas, and then reoccupied by hippies in the 60s/70s, some of whom remained. There was still the odd ruined abandoned building dotted around the hills.

Our workaway hosts, Vanille and Nicolas, had renovated an old ruin into a fantastic piece of work. After 3 ½ weeks there I still couldn’t figure out the layout of the building! At one end was the gîte – that could house up to 12 people, a kitchen/living area in the centre, and a vast spacious room at the other end (for Chi Gong in the mornings). They had 8 hectares of land between two small rivers that met at the bottom of the steep mountainside – filled mostly with châtaigniers (chestnut trees), a chicken coop, several vegetable and herb gardens, a caravan and open/prairie area.

View from the terrace

After a fairly stressful time trying to park the van (steep slope + loose chestnut shells = wheelspin galore), we walked up to the house to say hello…and were immediately greeted by Vanille and a whole host of other workawayers who ushered us into cars to go back to Le Cheylard to be interviewed for a local radio station!

Check it out if you want to hear Kieran chatting a bit about workaway (and you understand French). Unfortunately, I felt a bit overwhelmed, and was struggling to follow the French conversations, so I didn’t participate.

Overwhelmed was maybe an understatement. For the first week or so, I struggled a lot with the language barrier. I could vaguely follow conversations but perhaps as my brain was giving 100% to translating, I didn’t have the mental energy or confidence to join in. It really is an isolating experience. When with individuals it was fine – because you both make the effort to understand each other. But in group situations, like meal times (which is A LOT of the time in France!), I felt increasingly depressed and lonely.

Morning view out the van
Sometimes also with this fella

I enjoyed our somewhat brief time with the other workaways – Marie (who left on our 2nd day), Jean-Charles and Matteo (who both left on our 4th day). All wonderfully good at English. We enjoyed our first jour de congé (day-off) with Matteo and Jean-Charles – cycling downhill for ~15km to an epic swimming/diving spot in a secluded valley. And then cycled all the way back uphill (the Bristol hills had not prepared us enough for this)!

I jumped from here!

Matteo showed me the magic bus – a bit like the one from ‘Into the Wild’ – old and abandoned from the hippie era.

The magic bus

Jean-Charles taught me a new card game and told us exciting stories from his travels across the world (mostly by foot or hitchhiking!). I would highly recommend reading his very poetic blog (in French), which gives a great description of Nicolas: (translated) “…an artist, a craftsman who loves working with his hands… he is a conductor, a composer”

Nicolas was a magician with food… or maybe a mad scientist? Approaching his laboratory, sorry, kitchen, laden with interesting herbs from the garden, and within a fairly short amount of time would concoct exquisite delights that only he knew how to make. When asked, he wouldn’t be able to give you instructions or a recipe. His bread was like no other I have ever tasted, and that, coupled with honey straight from their bees, was heaven. Kieran called him ‘an ent ensconced in a forest of flavours’, as he spoke very slowly, with long pauses and filler sounds.

Vanille was something of the opposite. She was also creative and artistic, but acted decisively and quickly. She would list out orders, things to do, and seemed to be perpetually busy – cleaning the gîte, working, driving somewhere…

Pruning châtaigniers

Our work was much harder labour than the last, and 9am – 1pm Monday to Saturdays. We spent many days pruning ‘les châtaigniers’ of their lower branches – often from precarious positions on sloped ground, loose soil and stones from ancient ‘murets’, and the previous year’s dead branches and fallen chestnuts (those things are NOT pleasant to fall on!).

Kieran being a don

We learnt the term ‘débroussaillage’ (clearing/strimming) the hard way – evicting large areas of densely packed bushes of ‘genêt’, and making the nearby paths clearer. An interesting task was to mark out the local walking routes by painting yellow flashes on rocks and trees (balisage). I, later, drew up the routes on a map and gave descriptions of the walks for the giteurs to use.

Randos from La Coste

Kieran spent four days sorting out their (very disorganised!) shed of tools and things, even ordering the nails by size. Nicolas had a very…creative way of keeping his building stuff, likewise with his kitchen.

The week following the other workaways’ departure was a particularly rough one for me. I felt increasingly frustrated that I couldn’t communicate well with our hosts. That, coupled with difficulty sleeping, left me exhausted and dreading the following days. Kieran graciously moved to the caravan so I would have the whole van to myself, to try and help me sleep. It was little wonder that Vanille approached me to ask if we were sure that we wanted to stay? I tried to explain that it was my poor French/lack of sleep, and not that I didn’t like/enjoy the place. She said we had very deadpan faces…maybe that’s my ‘translating in progress, I’m not sure if my reaction should be a happy or sad one yet…’ face!

After that, however, things began to look up – I was sleeping better, and we were using our free afternoons to explore the area more (instead of siester-ing!). We met the wonderful Theo! A neighbour who had returned to finish building his father’s house. He was about our age, polylingual and half Scottish/Swiss (with an accent to match!). He had a treasure chest of board games, which we worked our way through in the evenings (or – when Lord of the Rings Risk was involved – the early hours of the morning). He showed us a nearby swimming lake (lac Devesset) on the plateau, imparted a wealth of knowledge about the area, and – most importantly – taught me how to ride a motorbike!!

Lac Devesset

Another workaway also joined the team – Bea from Spain. I think having another couple of English-speakers to hang out with improved my mood considerably. Bea ended up staying for about a week, but in that short amount of time we got on swimmingly. She found Kieran hilarious (which sometimes annoyed him, especially early in the morning!) – perhaps because he has more ‘British’ mannerisms than me. But as a result, Kieran is now really intrigued by the Spanish and wants to visit Spain!

Mouki (with Kieran doing balisage)

Oh! I’m 1,500 words in and I haven’t even mentioned Mouki yet!! The most adorable/annoying big puppy you will ever meet. I fell in love. I sometimes hope I’ll see him running around a corner after me with his big dopey face. He followed me everywhere! And cried for hours when he wasn’t allowed to chase people walking past. It was so lovely having this permanent companion, although sometimes fairly irritating when using sharp tools. He had a weird obsession with water – every time we passed a stream he would begin to paw at it, and then growl and squeal and try to attack ALL the water. Endless entertainment.

Lulu

Lulu was equally as cute, but much more mature. Although they were both so unused to seeing vehicles that whenever one arrived/left they would run around and under it – much to the frustration of the driver. Lulu tried to be Titou’s (the cat) bodyguard when Mouki was around – although she would sometimes, very unfairly, receive an angry cat scratch or two in return.

She was also terrified of thunderstorms. So were we when we saw the clouds (‘seats of the Gods’ as Kieran described):

Seats of the Gods
A moment of peace between Mouki and Titou

We went on numerous (dog-accompanied) hikes in the endless woods and mountains. The area was stunning: I attempted to draw the view from Vanille & Nicolas’ terrace, and Kieran wrote some poetry about how it felt there:

Birds swirl melodies,

Harmonies entwined with shadows,

swift and flickering,

slow and pondering, over

chestnuts and pines,

gnarled and wise,

Sentinels of the mountainside.

And now the chimes join the

Orchestra, playing on the breeze.

Soak in the flavours, as honey

soaks bread, with smiles and calm

and sunshine.

The days grew hotter and hotter. One day, (37oC), we embarked on a cycle ride with Bea to Rochebonne. The beginning was excellent – down down down to Le Cheylard then along a relatively flat cycle path upriver. We had to leave the track to make our way up to the ruins – from there our luck ran out! We had to beg a passing resident for water, we’d finished all our supplies and sweated them out. In the middle of the day, in boiling direct sunlight, we dragged our bikes up a steep walking path. Finally, we made it, albeit very grumpy and feeling sorry for ourselves, but it was well worth the effort:

Rochebonne, Bea and a view of the Ardèche

 

There was a waterfall right next to the castle – finally, a chance to cool down!

On our return journey Kieran fell headfirst into a ditch, we half carried/rode our bikes on a rocky footpath that Bea slipped off of into a large bramble bush…and we received a total of 5 punctures between us. Rochebonne was definitely still worth it…right?!

Our workaway experience had been a rollercoaster of an adventure, but it ended with a bit of a crash landing… The hosts gave us some honey as a farewell gift, they also imparted their thoughts about us, which weren’t as sweet. It made us realise that our communication problems were worse than we thought, although not entirely our fault – as their main issue (leaving our things in the house) could have been mentioned much sooner and more directly! It definitely made us think about what workaway means as a ‘cultural exchange’ and what we’d like from hosts as part of this exchange.

Obviously, it was unlikely that our hosts would think in exactly the same way as we do – because of our cultural differences – and that isn’t always a bad thing. However, for this particular place our values clashed significantly. Some of their beliefs and ways of thinking were so far removed from our scientific grounding, that a fair few arguments ensued. They told us we were narrow minded, and not open to their beliefs. I think perhaps they too were not open to our way of thinking (and thousands of years’ worth of developing the scientific technique…), but approached a sort of ‘pick and choose’ method to what science they did believe in (e.g. climate change).

Some of our values did match, but the origins of them differed. For example, Nicolas led Chi Gong every morning (unfortunately I struggled with waking up early enough and only made it to one session!). He believed in the power of ‘Chi’ (‘energy’), and the practice uses movements to transfer the energy from outside the body to different parts of the body (again, I only did this once so I’m no expert). I try to practice mindfulness, and that also uses the concept of focussing on certain areas of the body – to bring your awareness to parts that may be in pain. In brief, mindfulness uses the power of the mind to try and fix problems, as does Chi Gong – but with a more spiritual approach.

The wizard dishing up his masterpiece

Nicolas also explained that for some of his cooking, e.g. by grinding salt by hand, he was actually putting energy into the food. Now, that is something I can’t get my head around, but I’m not going to argue with the magician of food!

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